If your story doesn’t have strong, compelling characters … no-one’s going to want to read it.
That might sound harsh. But however intricate your plotting or however exotic your setting, if your characters are flat and uninteresting, there’s nothing for the reader to invest in.
We read stories because we’re interested in people… and what happens to them.
If your characters seem insipid or passive, here are three ways to make them into stronger, more interesting people.
#1: Make Them Want Something
Your protagonist probably (hopefully!) has a goal. That might be returning to the status quo, if something has shattered their peaceful life … or it might be getting out of their ongoing situation and improving things.
Secondary characters, too, can want things. They might want:
- A new job, or a promotion.
- More money.
- Validation or acceptance.
- Power over someone or a group of people.
- A partner.
- A divorce.
If you can figure out what drives them – what they might sacrifice almost anything for – then you’ve got a far more interesting character than if you’ve not let them truly want anything at all.
#2: Give Them a Past
Your character has a past, or backstory. The reader should feel that the character existed before your story began … and that they’ll carry on existing after it ends. (Unless you kill them off part way.)
If their backstory looks like this –
Josie grew up in a happy family home, graduated high school and went to college to study her preferred major
– then it’s not much good to you! Your character needs to have what screenwriters call a “ghost” (explained adroitly by K.M. Weiland here): something in their past that haunts them.
It might be something terribly wrong they did, that they’re still trying to atone for.
It might be a missed opportunity that they’ve been kicking themselves about ever since.
It might be a seemingly innocuous comment that someone made to them years ago … that they’ve never been able to shake off.
As well as making your character a more interesting person, the “ghost” in their past can be a great source of mystery that keeps readers turning the pages: you might reveal that something bad happened to the character without explaining it straight away.
#3: Put Them into Impossible Situations
One of the best ways to strengthen your characters is to force them to take action – and make choices.
When I say “impossible” here, I don’t mean “unrealistic”. Instead, I mean that you should put your character into a situation where there is no good choice.
Make them choose between two bad alternatives. One might be worse than the other, but the option they choose will still have unpleasant (potentially horrific) consequences.
Alternatively, give them two horrible alternatives and have them use their ingenuity to take a third option.
Whatever the exact result, the process of them having to make a choice (and live with it) can give their character more nuance than before.
#4: Make them Suffer
Characters who are going through physical or emotional trauma tend to get our sympathy (even if it’s to some extent self-inflicted). You need to let your characters get hurt in order to bring out who they really are – or to push them to become better than who they previously were.
I’ve written about this in the past, so I won’t rehash it all here – if you want more, check out:
- Making Bad Things Happen to Good Characters
- 15 Ways to Make Your Characters Suffer (for the Good of Your Novel)
#5: Don’t Force them to be Black or White
Almost all characters have some good and some bad in them. You might have a protagonist who’s generally a good person – but they’ve got a bit of a temper. Or you might have an antagonist who’s horrible – but who shows surprising loyalty to their companions.
Readers know that real people are never all good or all bad, and they’ll be more convinced by a flawed protagonist than by a protagonist who always does the right thing, with a smile on their face.
Similarly, villains who are just pure evil can be scary … but even then, they should have some actual motivation. Maybe they desire power at all costs; maybe they are trying to right a perceived wrong; maybe they’ve been treated horrifically in the past and they’re lashing out. Giving them an occasional moment of doing something not so evil, or at least some reasons why they became the way they are, can make them seem more real – and quite possibly more scary – than if they’re just a cackling cardboard cut out.
Are there any characters that have really stuck in your mind from stories you’ve read? What made them so interesting and engaging … and how could you use those techniques or attributes in your own stories?